The “cost” of being Jewish in America today is staggering – day school or religious school, synagogue membership, kosher food, elaborate and expensive meals every Friday night and Saturday lunch… the list goes on. To make matters worse, funding sources that traditionally subsidized some of these expenses have all but disappeared.
One woman laments-“There’s nowhere left to cut. We’ve even been turning down invitations to weddings and bat mitzvahs, because we felt that we could give a more modest gift if we don’t attend. But my daughter’s friends are starting to become bat mitzvahed over the next year. In addition to the expenses we’re going to have for her event, we’ve got to come up with gifts for all the girls in her class. She won’t give up going, and we can’t send her with less than a $50 check.”
There’s not much to be done about the current economical situation, or about the high tuitions and cost of groceries. But there are creative solutions to cutting the cost of your Shabbat and holiday meals, your events, and even your gift giving.
Hosting Doesn’t Have to Include Brisket
The key to a Shabbat meal is to make it different, special. Think of your least costly menu and jazz it up in ways that won’t cost you. Start with the table cloth and place settings. Go all out with pieces that you already own-set each place with a water goblet and a wine glass, and even a mini Kiddush cup. Fold your cloth napkins in a flat rectangle in the center of each plate, slightly hanging off the table, and lay a single flower or a sprig of fresh herbs diagonally across. Use lots of silver, white, and clear class, and light a few tea lights around the dining room just before you light the Shabbat candles. Now back to your menu-let’s say you chose veggie lasagna. Cheap and lots of it, right? Now add a simple lettuce salad sprinkled with something a little more exotic-toasted pine nuts or pomegranate seeds. Add a tomato salad with sliced mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, and all you need is dessert. Whatever you prepare (or unwrap!), serve it in your nicest champagne glasses for instant panache. Your lasagna has just become your little black dress-instead of going from office to cocktail party, it’s gone from weekday to Shabbat-with just a few accessories.
Holidays can be trickier; the crowds are bigger and the meals are even more elaborate. And of course, the food traditions are even more important to uphold. The trick here is to try and make small amounts of several different dishes. For example, if you’d like to have an expensive roast for a main course, don’t try and make three of them and feed all thirty guests. Consider preparing one roast that could serve ten or twelve, add a more economical chicken dish for ten, and then a fish or vegetarian dish. Your mom will be happy that you served her roast, and everyone else will appreciate the variety and marvel at your wide repertoire of cooking skills.
Event Planning on a Budget
When planning a brit milah or baby naming, bar or bat mitzvah, or even a wedding, only you can judge what is realistic to spend given your budget, your wishes, and what is acceptable in your community. Peer pressure can be tremendous in these situations, and in the case of parents hosting events in honor of their children, cutting back on expenses can feel wrong and selfish. But hosts often overspend to the point that they no longer get any joy out of the event, or worse, wind up resenting the guests or even their own children who they were trying to please in the first place. The secret to planning a meaningful celebration is to focus on the meaning. While it’s true that an exclusive setting and fancy catering service can make a party unforgettable, so can heartfelt speeches, ceremonies to honor deceased relatives, and well-thought-out charity projects tied to the event. If you still feel that you really want all of the best of the best at your event, think about keeping the guest list small. The intimacy at the party will add to the classy atmosphere, and you can plan several smaller or more modest celebrations for the guests you don’t invite-perhaps catering a casual breakfast or toast for your work friends and sponsoring a kiddush in your synagogue one Shabbat. Large synagogues often put out a spread after services in any case-check with your events coordinator to see if they’re willing to accept a donation, beef up the spread a bit, and make an announcement that the kiddush was sponsored in honor of your event. Both your work friends and your fellow synagogue members will appreciate the gestures and may even feel relieved that they can share in your joy without feeling obligated to bring a gift.
Gift Giving that Won’t Put You in the Red
This issue is a no-brainer. Instead of writing a check, bring a gift. For much less than the amount that you would feel obligated to give, you can find something special and meaningful. For weddings, the possibilities are endless-Shabbat candle holders with a matching Kiddush cup, a handmade mezuzah, or a Hebrew blessing for the home to hang on the wall. If you like the idea of giving Judaica, but are not 100% comfortable with assuming that the couple will use it or enjoy it-consider a piece of handmade art that was created in Israel. The folk art of Israel often incorporates Jewish symbols, such as pomegranates, which give the piece a Judaic flavor but not necessarily a religious one. Israel has many innovative artists who work in media that is fresh and interesting, such as recycled newspaper. The couple will probably appreciate the connection to Israel, and if they don’t, they’ll certainly appreciate the original piece of art with which to start their marital collection.
Bar Mitzvah gifts can be a little more difficult-books are a nice choice, but the bar mitzvahs are often presented with one or two as part of their ceremony, so you should be careful not to go for the obvious choices. There are many modern books of questions and answers about Judaism, books on the establishment of the state of Israel or the heroism of the Six Day War-try and think of a topic that relates to the boy’s interests. A set of knitted or suede (and now eco-friendly suede) kippot (yalmulkes) is a nice option-Jewish men say you can’t have too many.
Shabbat candlesticks make great Bat Mitzvah gifts, as do almost any other Judaic items. Stay away from the heavy silver stuff (she probably got enough of that from her Bubbe) and think young and hip-ceramic or even glass has a less traditional feel than silver, and an interesting pair of candlesticks will look great in her room now, even if she doesn’t actually start lighting them for another ten years. Jewelry is another can’t-go-wrong option, and the selection is endless. You don’t necessarily have to go for a Star of David pendant-think about a hamsah, or a pomegranate, or maybe a kabbalistic charm. Kabbalah jewelry is still all the rage. Jewelry designer Maayan Pariente makes pendant necklaces with charms adorned with beautifully-appropriate sentiments for a 13-year-old girl, such as the kabbalistic letter combinations for “unconditional love”, “marvel”, or “purity”. If you’re concerned that she’ll get a lot of Judaic jewelry, consider a non-Judaic piece made by an Israeli artist-there are plenty of great options, some for under $30-try Dikla Meri for a wide range of styles.
Bar and Bat Mitvah celebrations are often tied to a tikkun olam project (literally, a project that “repairs the world”). In preparation of their ritual coming of age ceremonies, kids often embark on year-long efforts to collect donations for charitable organizations, or raise awareness about issues they find important. Making a donation to the respective cause in honor of the bar or bat mitzvah is always a special gift. You are of course not only contributing to the cause, but to the bar or bat mitzvah’s path toward his or her adult responsibilities as a Jew. In most cases the amount of your donation is not revealed to the honoree, and you should give at level on which you feel able and comfortable.
No one said that living a Jewish life is easy, but a few creative decisions can help make it at least slightly less expensive, and perhaps even a bit more meaningful.
Sharon Geva is a writer living in Beit Hashmonai, Israel with her husband and three sons. She is the owner of http://www.shopisraelart.com/, an online store selling handmade art, jewelry, and judaica made in Israel.
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